Angelle Bergeron for ENR
On the western side of the Inner Harbor Navigational Canal, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers rushes to complete a secondary, 1800-ft Hesco-basket barrier behind a suspect section of floodwall. The barrier was already planned for use during repairs but the possible arrival of another hurricane is speeding the work.
On the eve of the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, contractors and officials in New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast are racing to prepare for a collision with Gustav.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is hustling into the evening Aug. 28 to shore up a section on the western side of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal in New Orleans as Gustav careens through the Caribbean, keeping edgy folks from the Florida Panhandle to Galveston, Texas wondering about its next move.
Through Saturday, crews will be placing Hesco baskets along a stretch of the IHNC where the Corps has concerns about stability, says Stacy Mendoza, a public affairs officer with the Corps’ Hurricane Protection Office. “We are doing this as a pro-active measure,” Mendoza says.
On the jobsite, crews are building an 1800-ft-long, pyramid-in-section, 6-ft-tall by 12-ft-wide wall of baskets. The wall is going up behind the existing floodwall as a second line of defense.
Rod Sanders, a Corps project superintendent temporarily dispatched from the Memphis district, says the construction of the wall had always been part of the work-plan to backstop the suspect protections in the reach while permanent repairs were made, “just in case.” But, he says, “it just so happens that Gustav accelerated the schedule.”
Nearby, Shaw Environmental Inc. of New Orleans is just beginning construction of a $695.4 million storm surge barrier that is designed to provide greater protection to much of eastern New Orleans and parts of St. Bernard Parish. Before Gustav reared his head, Gulf Coast Pre-Stress, Inc., based in Pass Christian, Miss., was scheduled to begin driving test piles for the project within days, says Max Williams, vice president of sales for the pre-stress supplier. But instead of driving piles, GCP, whose yard was ravaged by Katrina, is now rushing to secure its fleet of tugboats, barges and equipment. The fleet is scattered on sites ranging from the construction of Louisiana Hwy. 1 in Port Fourchon, to the I-10 Twin Spans over Lake Pontchartrain, all the way to projects in Beaumont, Texas.
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“We have a hurricane plan that we start implementing 72 hours before expected landfall and that plan changes if the storm is a Category 3 or more,” Williams says. “We will batten down the plant by Friday night to prepare early in case this one comes on a Monday night like Katrina.”
Contractors throughout the area are making storm preparations. “We are closely monitoring Gustav and securing equipment and materials on the job site,” says G.J. Schexnayder, project manager with Boh Bros. Construction Co., LLC. It holds the $379-million contract for the 4.5-mile, low-rise portion of the bigger, more storm resistant $803 million I-10 Twin Span bridges. “Tomorrow, we will bring in all of our barges, tugboats and secure all equipment,” Schexnayder says. “Right now, the computer modeling has Gustav jumping all over the place, but if it comes into the Gulf as a major hurricane, we want to have all of our equipment in place so employees can take care of their families.”
Only a week ago, Boh went through this same drill with tropical storm Fay, and lost a couple workdays in the process. “We don’t want to take any chances even if it does cost us some time,” Schexnayder says.
If the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development must implement its “contra flow” evacuation plan, the existing twin spans, which still rely upon temporary, pre-fabricated, modular segments of “Acrow Bridge,” will be called into heavy duty service. The Acrow sections were used to make emergency repairs to the westbound (in-bound to New Orleans) span, but may be translated into additional eastbound lanes in the event of contra flow.
“The Acrow bridge will stay open at least until we are finished contra flow,” says Michael Stack, District 2 administrator for the DOTD. The DOTD is currently reviewing plans and coordinating timelines, Stack says. “Contra flow will start 30 hours before tropical storm winds reach the coast,” he says. “We adjust a little in either direction so we can perform certain activities in daylight hours, including placing barriers and reverse flow signs.”
District 2 includes Lafourche, Terrebonne, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Orleans, Jefferson and St. Charles Parishes. Stack says the DOTD has already moved forward with its plan for contractors throughout the district to move into their storm plans to clear roadways and secure equipment and materials on job sites. Additionally, the DOTD is in contact with all of the levee districts and is working to help facilitate requests for additional help. “So far, Plaquemines Parish is the only one that asked for assistance with Hesco baskets for a 7,000 linear ft. stretch of the Citrus levees on the west bank,” Stack says.
Major operations with Hescos and sand bagging will likely begin in St. Bernard Parish on Friday, says Robert Turner, Jr., regional director of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority—East. “We know of some areas, if the storm continues towards us and intensifies beyond a Category 2, where we would place Hesco baskets on the interior, secondary levee system,” Turner says. Sand will probably be placed at a 60-ft road crossing in Verret, and two 400-ft and 800-ft stretches along the Violet Canal, he says.
There is some concern that, due to recent Mississippi River flooding in the Midwest, Hesco baskets may be in scarce supply. If availability becomes a problem, the levee districts will use 3-ft by 3-ft by 3-ft, one-cu-yard sand bags, Turner says. “We have already been in contact with the sheriff’s office, and trustees will be available to fill those if we have to go that route,” he says. Unlike the Hescos, which can stand alone and be completely filled with backhoes, the smaller sandbags require manpower to hold them in place while they are filled with the backhoes.
The way it looks now, the Orleans Levee District won’t begin closing the 60 hurricane gates in Orleans Parish until Sunday morning, says Stevan Spencer, executive director. “We’ll start closing the lower elevation gates and working our way up to the higher ones,” Spencer says.
Once the Hesco baskets are placed at the IHNC, the Corps’ New Orleans District is “ready and waiting,” says Jerry Colletti, assistant chief of operations. “All of our teams are set. Our outfall canal teams are on alert. Everybody’s been notified,” Colletti says. “We geared up the other day for Fay. So we’ve tested all the outfall canal pumps, and we are at 100% operations there.”
Unfortunately, projections have Gustav making landfall right at Morgan City and heading for New Orleans, Colletti says. “But we can’t really tell at the five-day point,” he says. “Everybody here is aware of what we need to do, and where we’re supposed to be. We’re there and we’re ready.”
The west bank vicinity of the Greater New Orleans Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System is more vulnerable than other areas because construction of the hurricane protection system in that area isn’t as far along as elsewhere around New Orleans, Colletti says.
“People need to realize that no matter where you are, there will be risk. You’re at risk whether it’s a tropical storm or a Category Five,” Colletti says. “We are farther along than we were pre-K [before Katrina], and we’re much better prepared team-wise, but there will be risk. People need to be prepared and listen to local officials in regards to evacuations.”
The public is more receptive to early preparations like gate closures, Spencer says. “Businesses are even more receptive, taking a sooner-the-better attitude,” he says. “We start closing gates 24 hours prior to gale force winds making landfall.”
Information sharing has improved since Hurricane Katrina, Stack says. “I have a lot more resources that I could depend on and call if necessary, including everything from supplies for levee district systems to levee district communications, food, and water. Before we had a process, but it’s an improved process.”